Alfred Mendes and the WWI story that inspired the making of the movie "1917"

Updated: Jan 24

Alfred Mendes, born on November 18, 1897, on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad, left for England in 1915 and joined the British Army in January 1916 at the age of 19.

He begun serving with the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade and later sent to Oisemont not far from Dieppe, France where he trained to be a signaller. Furthermore, he served in the Battle Of Passchendaele, Belgium. Passchendaele is also known as the Third Battle Of Ypres, which took place from July 31, 1917, to November 10, 1917. In this battle, both the Germans and the British suffered heavy casualties and all in all, resulted in the Germans getting pinned to Flanders and suffering from the casualties.

On October 12, 1917, hundreds of British soldiers, including Alfred was tasked with reclaiming the Poelcappelle village located close to the Pssachendaele Ridge that had been overtaken by the Germans at that time. 158 of the 484 men in Alfred's Battalion either died, wounded or unaccounted for.

The missing men, scattered along the miles of water-filled shell craters of No Man's Land were unable to communicate their position. As a follow-up, Alfred's commanding officer asked for a volunteer to locate the position of the surviving men unaccounted for and report back. For this dangerous task, Alfred volunteered.

Written in his memoirs "Autobiography of Alfred H. Mendes 1897-1991", he wrote "I had done a signaling course and although it bore little relationship to the job at hand, I felt myself under an obligation to the battalion. I volunteered." He managed to not only locate but also rescue numerous survivors. As a continuation in his memoirs, he wrote, "In spite of the snipers, the machine-gunners and the shells, I arrived back at C Company's shell hole without a scratch but with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end."

Due to his brave act to volunteer and rescue so many, he was later awarded The Military Medal For Bravery.

In May 1918, Alfred Mendes accidentally inhaled poison gas used by the German army during their attack at La Bassee Canal near Béthune, France. This led to Alfred getting sent back to Sheffield, Britain, to recover at the hospital.

Eventually, he returned to Trinidad and worked at his father's provisions business whilst writing poetry and fiction on the side. In 1933, he traveled to New York City to join literary salons, which led to him getting acquainted with several American writers such as Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe and William Saroyan. By 1940, he returned to Trinidad, gave up writing and became a civil servant. Working as a General Manager at Port Services Department, became his last job. Married three times, the first one dying of pneumonia, second leading to divorce and third, which lasted till they both died due to natural causes whilst living in Barbados in 1991.

The "1917" movie; Alfred Mendes' true story inspired his grandson, Sam Mendes, to make this movie.

Sam Mendes described the movie; "In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers."

"I had a story that was a fragment told to me by my grandfather, who fought in the First World War. It's the story of a messenger who has a message to carry. And that's all I can say. It lodged with me as a child, this story or this fragment, and obviously, I've enlarged it and changed it significantly. But it has that at its core."

However, much of the movie has been imagined. In the movie, there are two men, Black and Schofield, running across the No Man's Land to warn hundreds of soldiers from heading into a German trap, instead of just Alfred heading over alone to find survivors.

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